Good Enough

Good Enough

By Katherine Dykstra

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 4.23.31 PMMy son, slapped red and squinty and no bigger than a sack of flour, was curled up on my chest, panting, shocked by light and air and breath. My husband Parker stood over us, tears rolling down his face. There was the sound of chirping monitors and the murmuring obstetrician and the metallic scent of blood against a sharp chemical sterility. As I tried to memorize my son’s face — searching violet eyes, sailboat mouth — I was overwhelmed by a feeling of strength. I did it. We had done it. The nurse pulled aside my gown and directed Arlo’s face toward my breast, touching the cleft between his nose and upper lip with my nipple. Eyes closed, he opened his mouth, latched, sucked. He reached up and pressed on my breast with his hand, which, fingers spread, was no bigger than a silver dollar.

“Look,” said the nurse, winking at me. “He’s helping.”

During my pregnancy I’d been amazed by how my body could build and feed and stretch to accommodate this tiny human, awed that I could trust it to bring him into the world. Now, this baby, minutes old, knew how to feed himself when I did not. Watching his hand knead my breast, I realized he and my body would be handling things without me.

Breastfeeding continued to be easy for Arlo. He latched, had a good suck, and gained weight. I, on the other hand, had milk blisters on my nipples and was engorged on the right side, my right breast looking and feeling like a rock. Each time he latched, I felt as if someone was driving a pocketknife into my breast. I gripped the pillow so I would not grip my son. So by easy, I mean, it was hard but tolerable. Motherhood was supposed to involve sacrifice, I thought. Milk blisters and discomfort weren’t going to stop me from breastfeeding, which had always been the plan.

Other mothers I knew had supplemented with formula when their newborns didn’t gain back their birth weight, or when they feared they weren’t producing enough milk or could no longer drag themselves out of bed every hour to nurse. Some decided to give up breast-feeding all together, their bodies too broken from pregnancy and delivery to endure one more assault. I didn’t judge them; only they knew what was happening with their bodies, their babies, but I felt proud to be breastfeeding.

My goal was to nurse Arlo until he was one year old. My mother had breastfed both my brother and me, and I knew that “breast was best.” I knew that by nursing I could pass on my immunities to Arlo. And I knew that breastfeeding would help my uterus shrink back to its original size, lessen feelings of post-partum depression and help me shed my baby weight. These are the reasons I started nursing. Why I continued, despite the milk blisters, engorgement and exhaustion, was something else.

In the weeks before I gave birth, I happened upon the psychologist Donald Winnicot’s concept of the “good enough mother.” Winnicott, maintained that to thrive, a child doesn’t need a perfect mother, only a mother who is good enough. But the first months of motherhood were hard in a way I wasn’t prepared for. Day to day, I barely felt good at all. I had never been on demand for so many hours and days and weeks on end. I’d never been responsible for another person’s bottomless need. I no longer recognized my body — misshapen and still throbbing from labor— or my life. I couldn’t decide whether or not to return to work, and I was lonely; the friends who had visited me in the hospital vanishing after a couple of weeks, back to their own lives and jobs and plans. I couldn’t go to yoga or work in my garden or read a book. And this little being, whom I loved more than I knew I was capable of loving anything or anyone, cried. A lot. The only way I seemed to be able to make him happy was by nursing. Nursing was the thing that evened the scales, weighted so heavily with all I felt was failing at, to “good enough.”

When Arlo was four months old, Parker was nominated for an Emmy, and we decided that rather than take Arlo with us to Los Angeles, my mother would fly to Brooklyn and babysit for the weekend. It would only be three days, no time at all, and, I reasoned, good for everyone. My mother was dying to spend time with her first grandson; Arlo would get to bond with his grandmother; and Parker and I could benefit from some time alone. I would get to be myself again — a woman who enjoyed picking her way through novels during long plane rides, who could stare out of car windows in new cities for hours, who enjoyed a glass of wine and the surprise conversation of a night among strangers — if only for a weekend. It would be easy, I thought, or at least doable.

My mother worried that Arlo might not take a bottle from her, but I knew that as long as milk was coming, Arlo wouldn’t be picky about the mode of delivery. I worried more about his sleeping, picturing them both awake through the darkest hours of the night. What I never considered was what would happen when I got back.

I prepared for the trip by pumping enough milk for Arlo to drink for three days. I asked the hotel in Los Angeles to put a freezer in our room so I could bring the milk I pumped while I was away back to New York to replenish my frozen supply. I even bought a cooler to take on the plane, where I also planned to pump. Naively, pumping on the plane was my greatest stress. I still felt uncomfortable nursing Arlo in public, convinced that everyone was watching. Pumping was worse. Unlike breastfeeding, which, I believed, was beautiful, pumping made my breasts look and feel like udders, something I didn’t want even Parker to see. In the end, aside from an attendant’s telling me with a raised eyebrow that I could pump as long as I was “discrete,” it went fine, no worse than having to use a port-a-potty. I noticed, though, that I didn’t pump as much milk as I had on my last morning at home, but I chalked that up to the stress of the flight.

I planned to time my pumping in Los Angeles so that I’d be free to go out to dinner with Parker and his coworkers and to the Emmy’s without having to excuse myself to pump, an ordeal that necessitated electricity, a bathroom and access to my breasts; the dress I planned to wear had a dozen tiny buttons running up the back. I pumped in the hotel, after loafing at the pool with an old friend, in the middle of the night and upon waking on Emmy day. With each pump, I noticed I was producing less and less milk, my breasts growing harder and more painful by the hour. In an attempt to stimulate let down, Parker cued videos of Arlo for me on his iPhone, “songs” the two had recorded together — Parker on the guitar, Arlo chirping along. By Emmy day I’d given up on the pump altogether and instead stood over the hotel sink manually expressing, watching my precious milk trickle down the drain. On the red carpet, my breasts felt like two gourds.

When Parker and I returned to New York, we’d been gone for less than 72 hours. I barely said hello to my mother and went straight for Arlo. I pulled him from his crib and nursed to relieve the pain. In 30 minutes my breasts went from heavy as kettle bells and bruise tender back to normal.

I sighed with relief, thinking everything was better, that this would be just a minor hiccup in our nursing story, until the following day. When Arlo and I sat down to nurse, he sucked, unlatched and began to cry, a confused wrinkle popping up between his eyebrows.

“What’s wrong, baby?” I asked and touched my nipple to his upper lip, stimulating him to open his mouth. Again, he sucked for a minute and pulled off, his face crumpling. I hefted him onto the other side. He began to scream. I felt my breast and found it soft.

As Arlo shrieked, I ran hot water over one of the frozen bags of milk I’d brought back from Los Angeles. When I presented it to him, he flew at the bottle, guzzling the milk like he hadn’t eaten in days.

This scene repeated itself every two hours as the day wore on. A knot in my stomach grew as it dawned on me that I’d made a grave mistake.

I phoned a lactation consultant, who informed me that while I was in Los Angeles, I’d effectively told my body that Arlo and I were done breastfeeding and that it should stop producing milk. She advised me to start taking fenugreek—an herb that has been known to increase milk supply — three times a day and to rent a hospital-grade pump and use it after every nursing session and then again in the middle of the night. When I asked her if my supply would come back, she said, “I have no idea. Rent the pump right now.

For the next two weeks, every time we sat down to nurse, Arlo ended up in tears, frustrated as I moved him back and forth between my breasts before going to the freezer to defrost more of our dwindling supply. We both reeked of maple syrup, the result of the fenugreek. I was exhausted, from the constant pumping, from getting up in the middle of the night, from worrying that I was starving my child. Both of us cried a lot.

As Arlo and I struggled, the refrain from so many — my mother, my doctor, my friends, even Parker — was that I should supplement with formula. This irritated me. I didn’t want a way out; I wanted my milk to come back. I had gotten through pregnancy and labor by trusting my body, by believing that it knew what to do, even when I didn’t. I was supposed to be able to feed my baby. But what was dawning on me was that my body did know better than me; after 72 hours without nursing it knew that there was no baby to feed. I believed my failure was my fault, for being selfish, for wanting what I’d had before, the freedom to go away for the weekend, for making the choice to celebrate with my husband baby-free. When those around me encouraged me to supplement with formula, I heard them confirming my darkest thoughts, that I couldn’t undo what I’d done and this was crushing. In my head, it wasn’t that failing to nurse would make me a bad mother so much as that nursing, if I could do it, was what made me a good one.

Suddenly I understood why the women I knew who’d stopped nursing did so. Before, a part of me didn’t believe that they’d tried hard enough. Everything I read said there was no such thing as producing too little milk. Your body met whatever demand your infant put on it. The more you nursed and the more you pumped, the more milk you produced. What this didn’t take into account was the incredible demand of constant pumping, constant feeding. A newborn eats every two hours, sometimes more, all through the day and night. Infants are good at nursing, but they’re not yet as efficient as they will be. It takes them longer. They fall asleep. They wake back up and want to eat again. It is hard. It is all a woman can do.

When a friend who gave birth three weeks after I did told me that she was going to give up nursing because her daughter wasn’t gaining enough weight — parenthood was a lesson in pragmatism was the way she put it  — I supported her. Formula is a fine choice, I told her. Babies thrive on it. That’s what I believed then, what I believe now. Nursing certainly doesn’t have to be for every mother.

Early on, when our babies were teensy, my friend and I would walk to the park and meet a dozen other mothers who’d all had babies around the same time. We’d sit in the shade of a towering ash tree and talk about who was sleeping and who wasn’t and what carriers we preferred and how our bodies were healing. And when our babies started fussing, we’d pick them up and nurse them. A bunch of women sitting in a circle with their boobs out, was how I described it to Parker.

One day as we were leaving the park, my friend told me she hated being “that mom,” by which she meant the one pulling out a bottle amongst a sea of boobs. Her shame surprised me. How did anyone know she didn’t have breast-milk in that bottle? Plus, we all were doing whatever we could to get by. One mom confessed to sleeping her daughter on her stomach (forbidden); another said she turned down the monitor while she was trying to let her child cry it out. I confessed that Parker and I slept with Arlo in bed between us against the advice of every book I read and every person I talked to, including and especially our own doctor. That was the only way Arlo would sleep, so that’s what we did. Pragmatism. There was no room for any of us to judge. Which is what I told her.

Yet here I was harshly judging myself. I’d said that good enough was what I aspired to be, but now four months later I was wrapping up my entire success as a mother in whether or not I could continue to nurse.

Arlo and I were very lucky. All the fenugreek and pumping and crying worked. My supply came back and I was able to nurse him exclusively for another five months. But when he was ten months old, I went back to work and was once again faced with supply issues. I weathered them for a while, killing myself to produce, until one evening after Arlo went to bed and I tried to decide between pumping for the fourth time that day or sitting on the couch and having a glass of wine. It dawned on me that maybe good enough wasn’t the average of things I did that worked against the things I did that didn’t, maybe it was the average of the time I spent trying and caring and wanting to be a good mother with the time I spent trying and caring and wanting to take care of myself. The next day, we bought a tub of formula.

At a recent dinner with the same moms who used to sit, breasts out, under the ash tree, the woman seated next to me told me she was about to go back to work and she was concerned about where she would pump and if she would produce enough milk. I told her that I’d just begun to supplement. She shook her head, “I just don’t know if I can,” she said. “My mother nursed me. I just swore I would never give my baby formula.”

Of course, I’d once felt the same way, but in the wake of our trip to Los Angeles, even with my success getting back my supply, I’d begun to realize that I had to accept what my body already knew, that I could not live exactly as I used to, that the rigors of trying to be a person and a parent force choices and that it is easier, healthier even, to adjust expectations to realities than it is to feel constantly disappointed. For me, giving Arlo a bottle of formula a day turned out to be an enormous relief. He is 18 months old now and flourishing. I, too, am well. Or at least, good enough.

Author’s Note: Arlo is 18 months old now. Our nursing days feel like forever ago. But new challenges spring up all the time—I know there will be no end to the challenges of motherhood but I do my best to help us through the tough moments and, when what I try doesn’t work, I try to relax and readjust my expectations. I try to go easier on myself.

Katherine Dykstra is a nonfiction editor at Guernica. Her essays have been published in Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, Best and Shenandoah, among other publications. 

The Accidental Exclusive Breastfeeder

The Accidental Exclusive Breastfeeder


“Accidentally” becoming an exclusive breastfeeder.

Let me start by saying, I’m no lactivist. I think breastfeeding is great, if that’s what you’re into. I think formula is great, too. I’m pro-feeding-your-baby in whatever way works best for you and your family.

When I was pregnant with my son, I kept an open mind to my feeding options. I figured I’d give breastfeeding a try, but I wasn’t sure it would work for me. I have a thyroid issue and while it’s usually manageable, it can get in the way of milk production for some women. I always assumed my partner and I would do some kind of combo feeding. Breast milk when I was there and awake; formula when we wanted a night out. Plus, I knew I’d be returning to work when my kiddo was about eleven weeks old. It was hard to imagine that I’d be motivated to keep up with all that pumping.

What I didn’t realize when my partner and I were making our plans was that the baby would be demanding a vote.

I had a pretty rough delivery and when the pediatrician saw me looking like death warmed over at our one-week appointment, he took my partner aside to recommend I get some rest—some real rest.

“Give the baby a couple of bottles,” he said. “Take two six-hour naps.” And then, to drive it home: “The baby’s fine. I’m worried about you.”

Six hours of sleep seemed like an impossible dream, but on the chance of grabbing even three consecutive hours, my partner dutifully tried to give our son a bottle. He wasn’t having it.

Our son wouldn’t drink the next bottle either. Or the next one. Or the next one. He wouldn’t drink from any of the eight kinds of bottles we tried. Or the cup, or the spoon, or the syringe, or the supplemental nursing system my partner taped to his finger. He wouldn’t drink expressed breast milk or any of the varieties of formula we tried to give him. He wouldn’t drink them cold or warm. He wouldn’t take them from my partner, or me, or a babysitter. He would not drink them in a box. He would not drink them with a fox. You see where I’m going with this.

He was a good eater, a chubby baby, but he would take it straight from the tap and no other way. There went my brilliant plans for combo feeding.

As the weeks went on and my start date at work approached, I started to get nervous. My schedule meant that three days a week, I’d be leaving the house at eight a.m. and wouldn’t be getting back until close to seven in the evening. I’d be gone for nearly eleven hours, which was the equivalent of four good meals for my ten-week-old baby. They seem so fragile when they’re so small.

I called the lactation consultants in near-panic. They assured me that he would be fine. He wouldn’t starve to death while I was at work. “When he’s really hungry,” they said, “he’ll take the bottle.”

Only, he didn’t. I would come home from work at the end of my twelve-hour days to an angry, screaming, and really hungry baby. And then he’d eat all night long. Needless to say, it was not an ideal situation for either of us.

I kept pumping at work to keep my supply up. We continued leaving bottles of expressed milk for him, a few ounces each. The babysitter warmed them, the baby refused them, and down the drain they went. It started to feel like such an amazing waste that I began donating some of the milk I pumped.

I found several women through Human Milk for Human Babies whose babies had bad reactions to formula, and who didn’t pump enough milk to meet their babies needs. Reading their pleas for donor milk made my heart heavy. Their babies hadn’t gone along with their plans either.

When I finally weaned my son, he was about fourteen months old. He still wasn’t drinking from bottles or cups or anything else, despite our continued offerings. But I’d already done way more breastfeeding than I bargained for and, after that and nine long months of pregnancy, I was ready to go back to sustaining only one body. The pediatrician assured me that my son would start taking a cup when the breast was gone and, this time, he was right.

I sometimes find my way into conversations about breastfeeding on the playground or at the library. When I’m asked, I tell the truth: that I exclusively breastfed my son. In some ways that sentence is the secret password into a club I never wanted to belong to. Sometimes the women in this club are supportive and open-minded. But sometimes, they can be pretty judgmental toward women who make other choices—or have other choices thrust upon them.

It’s at those moments when I feel I really don’t belong. I still don’t have a problem with formula. I think my son and I both would have been happier and healthier people if he’d been willing to drink it from time to time. It’s good to have ideas and preferences and plans, but it’s also important to remember that our babies don’t always go along with them.

The Accidental Lactivists

The Accidental Lactivists

By Mira Saxena Mother Breastfeeding her newborn baby

The Breast Whisperer was at our door. It was day two home from the hospital after the birth of my first child, and no amount of reading or lactation class preparation could have readied me for the elusiveness of “the latch.” I had a small coterie around me: my parents, my husband, and squirming in my arms, my baby daughter. My father let her in, the city’s number one Lactation Consultant; she brought a “hospital grade” breast pump with her into our daughter’s room.

Having recently abandoned any sense of nursing bashfulness in front of my father, I struggled to hold my baby while balanced on an inflatable donut pillow on the seat of the glider chair. I hoped, in my sleep deprived haze that someone in the room would take notes on how to use this new machine.

After a natural birthing class, my husband and I had decided to go “all in” with exclusive breastfeeding for as long as I was able. But the “alwaysness” of breastfeeding on demand had been staggeringly exhausting. My own mother was sympathetic to my plight, but she had never used a breast pump herself, and didn’t have tips to share.

The first night at the hospital after our daughter’s birth, my husband sat alone on a glider, in the hospital nursery, chatting with the nurses and letting our baby suck on his thumb (a technique suggested by our birthing instructor). She fussed in his helpless arms but he held firm, telling the nurses we didn’t want to introduce formula, or a pacifier, for that matter, while I caught up on a few hours sleep ready to try again to nurse as dawn arrived.

Learning to breastfeed was difficult. Repeated tries with an improper latch had left me so sore it was painful to continue trying, but I tried with my Medela pump to extract enough milk to keep my supply from dwindling. For those few days prior to our Lactation Expert visit, my husband learned to feed my milk to our tiny one with a hooked syringe and, again, his thumb in between my attempts to let her nurse. She was like a small baby bird drinking from a beak.

That afternoon, the Breast Whisperer explained how to use the new, mint green contraption, which we then rented for a few months—it looked harmless, in all its pastel glory. Soon I was in the groove, producing an ample supply of milk.

Fear of the painful latch, however, threatened to thwart even my best attempts to breastfeed. I tried to tolerate my daughter’s nursing, even as I was nursing my own raw anatomy, with my husband crouched at my side. He tried to distract me by reading poems of Wallace Stevens. Those tender moments are some of my most cherished parenting memories.

My own dad was a different story. With my husband at work, my sister living overseas and my mother traveling, my retired father volunteered to come over every few days and spend time with me and the new baby—he’d hold the baby so I could pump, sit with her while I ate or keep her company while I got some much needed sleep.

When our daughter was five months old, a hurricane blew through town, knocking the power out in our suburb. We had decamped to the city for a few days, where luckily, there was still power. But most of my hard won milk was in our freezer at home. Fretting over the spoiled milk, my husband drove back in the horrible weather—with a cooler—and he brought back the milk stash, on ice. My knight in rain-soaked boots.

It’s easy to look back on these mammary memories now, sometimes in amusement. I didn’t know about thrush, how a nursing mother’s diet could affect the baby, about hand expressing or clogged ducts. So much is thrown at women at the critical juncture of birth and feeding, and there aren’t always supportive people around who advocate not to give up.

Lucky for me, the two most important men in my life kept me going until my daughter and I hit our stride and became a super breastfeeding duo. These amazing Dads taught me that sometimes men are the silent force behind the woman, stepping in when needed. I nursed our daughter until she was two and a half because of their early encouragement. Even though she was no longer the tiny infant, the glider was our favorite spot during those final years of nursing. It was also the place where I could reflect on the love that came from an early bond we all carefully nurtured, and created together.

Mira Saxena has read many an issue of Brain, Child with a sleeping baby in her arms. She writes often on parenting and motherhood and lives with her husband and two daughters in Washington, DC.

At The Pump

At The Pump

By Alexandria Peary

winter2009_pearyI’m lying on my side on hospital sheets low on thread count and high on antiseptics. The nurse presents me with my baby, a big-nosed reddish sleeper, while the progressive-seeming lactation consultant with dangling goddess earrings looks on. I am supposed to model different positions, and we are to see how well the baby latches on.

I fumble around, one breast angled out of the hospital gown, trying to arrange the baby around my still-engorged belly. All the while, I’m thinking, When else is it expected that one go topless in front of total strangers? This pink asterisk of my nipple seldom sees so much air.  It’s just assumed that a woman can seamlessly make the transition from a society of keeping covered to a place where she’ll be told to pull out her breast so that others can assess how good she is at using it.

“I guess I need a refresher course,” I tell her after a half minute of moving my breast like a joystick. I explain that it’s been two years between babies.

As the lactation consultant reviews the “football hold” and side-style feeding, I pretend to go along with it and make the motions. I feel like someone attempting reform, promising to eat healthfully but just waiting for the expensive diet coach or hawk-eyed spouse to leave the room to heave myself into the Godiva chocolates.

My breast actually aches—but not for my baby. No, it aches for its first postpartum bonding with the pump.

I’m just waiting for the lactation consultant to leave the room so my husband can dig out my breast pump, hiding beneath a pile of clean underwear in one of my bags. I feel like I’ve snuck a lap dog into the hospital. Although this baby’s waters broke three weeks early and I was unprepared, my hospital bags unpacked, I still managed to instruct my harried husband to find the breast pump. After my insurance card and meditation CDs, my Purely Yours was next on the list of crucial items.

Why don’t I tell her the truth? I wonder. That I don’t plan on breastfeeding at all? That I’m a full-time pumper? By the time this baby is six months old, I’ll have pumped (a conservative estimate) for fifteen days straight, and when I say “days,” I mean fifteen twenty-four-hour-day days.

For my first child, I pumped for seven months, and I’ll probably pump for nine months for this baby, which means I’ll have spent about 576 hours at the breast pump between November 2007 and August 2008. Like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who could measure out his life in teaspoons, I can measure my time by the books on tape I’ve listened to while at the pump.

For my first daughter, I splattered many a tome with breast milk, including War and Peace. For this daughter, I’ll have listened to the thirty-six tapes of Gone with the Wind in less than a week and a half. And I’ll also have listened to so many John Grisham and suspense books that the plotlines will become as obvious to me as the pattern on a plaid shirt. For Christmas this year, my husband and I will treat ourselves to a deep freezer, the type people use for spare apple pies and sale-flyer pot roasts, which I will completely fill with tubes and storage bags of milk by the beginning of February.

My milk will spilleth over, filling this huge upright freezer, plus a waist-high freezer, plus the one in the fridge. The milk will come in a variety of shades of yellow, like paint samples chosen by someone who wants to redo her living room but can’t decide which shade she likes best. The sunflower yellow-orange of early days nearest to colostrum, the flat yellow after carb-laden meals, and the pale skim milk when I had salad for lunch.

*     *     *

I became a mother who loves pumping more than breastfeeding when Sophia was born two and a half months premature and had to be tube fed during her lengthy hospitalization.

The medical community expects that a mother will stop breast pumping once her preemie leaves the neonatal intensive care unit. After all, it’s the baby accustomed to the bottle who is supposedly prone to “nipple confusion,” not the mother. You’re not supposed to fall in love with your breast pump, to mourn the end of your relationship with the machine, as I did when I had to return my hospital rental. You’re not supposed to feel that the last time you turn the knobs is as sweetly sad as the last time another mother nurses her baby.

The first time around, breast pumping meant I was able to do something constructive for my severely premature baby. Pumping was something that I alone could do, not the extensive staff of expert doctors, nurses, or therapists. It was a continuation of my pregnancy—it had that same privacy, that same power to help someone grow. Every time during that confusing summer that I pumped at two in the morning and again at four, I was reminded that I could do something right to counter the irrational guilt I felt about my pregnancy’s early end. I could fill the freezer in the NICU ward as well as the one in her second hospital; I could inundate them with my milk until they told me to hold off. Pumping was a symbol of hope—of the future when Sophia would be freed from the hospital.

With this second child, Simone, born healthy, it’s different. Pumping will become a way to increase the thickness of the rolls of fat on her stubby legs, to build on her natural good health. Like my mother covering the dining room table with an excess of food, pumping will allow me to see the abundance of yellow gold that my body produces, the food that will be Simone’s sole source of nourishment. I filled the NICU freezers, and now I can fill the freezers at my own home. Pumping will also allow me to continue pursuing my doctorate, to be away from home for extended periods of time, and to share with greater equity parenting a newborn with my husband. If it weren’t for the circumstances of Sophia’s premature birth, I would not have known the benefits of full-time breast pumping.

Given all these rock-solid reasons for pumping, why don’t I tell the truth in my hospital room? Well, even with the amount of supportive cheer pumped into the air by the maternity floor staff, I can sense that my preference for pumping will be challenged. I’m the anti-poster child for the La Leche League—or at least that’s how I feel around other mothers. (My three-year-old daughter will have watched so many pumping sessions that she will point to my chest and ask where mommy’s “breast pump parts are,” referring to my breasts.)

A belief in full-time breast pumping is not popular among the mothering circles I travel in—the liberal, critical thinkers, rather than the commercialized versions of parenting seen in most magazines. While it’s true that no one has ever said to me outright that I’m wrong to feed my breast milk to my baby from a bottle rather than directly from my body, the message is in the air. It’s present when another woman tells me how disgusting frozen breast milk looks or tastes. This strikes me in the gut, as though someone had unplugged the huge freezer holding the evidence of all the hours I’ve pumped.

No one ever says how beautiful—how maternal—the image of the woman at the breast pump is.  On the box of the pump I own, a woman in a business suit sits at her desk looking robotic, as though she could just as easily be hooked up to her adding machine or laptop as to her breast pump. She’s certainly no goddess-like woman cradling humanity.

And no poster celebrating breast pumping will be seen above the OB/GYN examination table. And yet I fantasize about such a poster, a Madonna-like figure in blue robes sitting with a breast pump (you pick the brand) attached lovingly to her chest, beaming and beatific. For I am just as dedicated to pumping as another mother would be to nursing. I, too, become irritated when someone impedes me (with a class held longer, with a lingering conversation, with bad city traffic) from feeding my baby—that is, from pumping every three hours.

No one will come into the hospital room after I give birth and ask me about my pumping plans. I won’t readily find an extensive support group or service for the breast pumping, so if the pump suddenly fails because of a microscopic slit in valve, I may think it’s a problem in my milk supply and give up.

After giving birth, a woman is frequently asked whether she intends to nurse. The seemingly benign question hangs in the air. Once the desired response is supplied—Yes, of course!—it’s as though a curtain is parted from around the patient’s bed. The beaded chains rattle, and the patient is allowed entrance into the land of golden good mothering. Until the moment the question is answered, however, there’s the distinct possibility that the woman will end up on the other side, that of not-so-good-mothers, a landscape of pollution, television, and cheese-flavored snacks.

Breast pumping gets only half of that good-mother equation right. You’re making the milk, but you’re denying your child of the psychological benefit of your closeness, a benefit provided, the true believers insist, only through nursing.

My baby daughter seems not to have received that message. She’s oblivious to any concerns about her way of dining and happily “tops” bottle after bottle of my breast milk with a little smile on her face. And although our way of feeding the baby means my husband is frequently the one who is up at two in the morning, he feels he’s had more opportunity to bond with his daughters than most dads whose partners breastfeed exclusively.

And when he asks why I worry so much what the lactation consultant, my relatives, or the nurses think of my pumping, I have an unexpected answer. It’s not that I particularly care what people think of me. It’s that I’m protecting my pumping from them. I don’t want my breast milk to be contaminated by their conservative attitude—an unacknowledged contributor to centuries of others telling women exactly how to be women.

If I can just get out of the hospital with some pumping initiated, I will be free to do as much pumping at home, at the office, and in the car as I like, with no one to judge me except the occasional female acquaintance or relative. I won’t have to answer the phone when the nice lactation consultant makes her several follow-up calls in the week after I return home. I can sit at the kitchen table with two-year-old in high chair, a two-day-old in her bassinet, and a breast pump churning at my chest as the consultant’s voice fills the answering machine. I can surround myself with the maternal trinity of child, baby, and breast pump.

Author’s Note: While writing this piece, I discovered at a whole online community of mothers who exclusively breast pump. Like me, these women have experienced personal and professional blessings from exclusively pumping. I’m still pumping, several months after I had expected to be done (in fact, I’m pumping while I type this sentence), but I’m at the tail end of it. I’m trying to deal with the sweet sadness that comes from the prospect of ending.

Brain, Child (Winter 2009)

Alexandria Peary is an Associate Professor and the First-Year Writing Coordinator in the English Department at Salem State University. She is the author of two books of poetry, Fall Foliage Called Bathers & Dancers (2008) and Lid to the Shadow (2010). The latter was selected for the 2010 Slope Editions Book Prize. Her work has appeared in The Denver Quarterly, New American Writing, The Gettysburg Review, jubilat, Massachusetts Review, Fence, Crazyhorse, Spoon River Review, Verse, Literary Imagination, and Pleiades. 

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